As I Lay Dying

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Language versus Action Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Self-Interest Versus Heroic Duty Theme Icon
Mortality and the Nature of Existence Theme Icon
Family, Birth, and Death Theme Icon
Religion and Faith Theme Icon
Language versus Action Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in As I Lay Dying, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Language versus Action Theme Icon

Faulkner’s interest in the disconnect between language and action is clear from the way the novel is told in and of itself: there is a disconnect between the action of the novel – the Bundren’s journey to Jefferson – and the way such action unfolds – through individual narrations of the characters involved in and around the journey. As I Lay Dying does not tell an objective tale, but is a series of subjective experiences, showing in the very way the novel is told that there is an inherent disconnect between language, how it can tell a story, and action, the story itself.

Almost every character in the novel possesses a different and unique perspective toward the question of language versus action. Most clear, however, is the dichotomy between Darl and Jewel, especially when seen in context of their relationship to Addie Bundren. Out of all the characters in the book, Darl has the greatest gift for using language, made clear by the fact that his chapters are the most poetic. Darl also happens to be the most rejected son of Addie Bundren. Jewel, by contrast, is Addie’s favorite son, and can be seen as a man of action rather than words. For instance, Jewel saves Addie’s coffin from the river and also saves Cash’s precious box of tools. When Darl sets fire to Gillepsie’s barn, Jewel saves Gillepsie’s animals and then saves Addie’s coffin. In Addie’s single chapter, narrated posthumously, she expresses her disgust and distrust for words, explaining why she favored Jewel, her only non-Bundren child and, unlike Darl, her child that prized action over language. Words are “just words,” in Addie’s conception.

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Language versus Action Quotes in As I Lay Dying

Below you will find the important quotes in As I Lay Dying related to the theme of Language versus Action.
1. Darl Quotes

“Jewel, fifteen feet behind me, looking straight ahead, steps in a single stride through the window. Still staring straight ahead, his pale eyes like wood set into his wooden face, he crosses the floor in four strides with the rigid gravity of a cigar store Indian dressed in patched overalls and endued with life from the hips down, and steps in a single stride through the opposite window and into the path again just as I come around the corner.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Page Number: 4
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl and his brother Jewel are walking through a field on their way home, and here they come across an old cottonhouse. Darl watches as Jewel steps right through it as Darl goes around it. These two motions, straight versus curved, direct versus indirect, can be understood as metaphoric descriptions of the two brothers' quite distinct characters. Jewel is focused on actions and results. If something is in his way, he will plow right through it, never stopping to consider the challenge or to question himself or his actions.

Darl, in turn, takes a more circuitous route. He is inclined to think deeply about the world around him and about his place within it. Even this passage, which comes to us through his perspective, shows a strong sense of the beauty of language on its own, not for what it can do or enact but for the charm of comparisons like Jewel to a cigar store Indian, his eyes to wood. The ability to observe and notice one's lived experience is implied, here, to be individual and even random - the fact that the brothers don't share it suggests that there is little "natural" glue of character or experience holding a family together.

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4. Jewel Quotes

“It would just be me and her on a high hill and me rolling the rocks down the hill at their faces, picking them up and throwing them down the hill, faces and teeth and all by God until she was quiet and not that goddamn adze going One lick less. One lick less and we could be quiet.”

Related Characters: Jewel (speaker), Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 15
Explanation and Analysis:

Jewel is angry about Cash's incessant hammering and sawing that can be heard from within the house - Cash is preparing the coffin for the dying Addie. Here, he may not employ the kind of rich, complex language that his brother Darl can make use of, but that certainly doesn't mean that he's incapable of feeling or powerfully describing his feelings. Jewel feels alienated and alone within the Bundren family: the only person he feels a connection with is Addie, and she is now dying. 

While Cash may think he is honoring his mother by making a coffin for her, this has nothing to do with familial duty in Jewel's eyes. In this passage he imagines a heroic final battle involving him and his mother against the rest of the family before Addie dies. This image seems to be derived in some part from mythical or Biblical stories, but Jewel is vague on the specifics: for him, it is enough to imagine a violent fantasy that would allow him to escape from the noise and selfishness that he believes characterizes the other Bundrens.

7. Dewey Dell Quotes

“And so it was because I could not help it. It was then, and then I saw Darl and he knew. He said he knew without the words like he told me that ma is going to die without words…And that’s why I can talk to him with knowing with hating because he knows.”

Related Characters: Dewey Dell Bundren (speaker), Darl Bundren
Page Number: 27
Explanation and Analysis:

Dewey Dell is remembering the difficult moments leading up to sleeping with Lafe, including her attempts to get out of it, and now her current worry is that she may be pregnant. Now she has recognized that Darl somehow knows this, even without her telling anyone. The rest of the family also recognizes this ability of Darl's, a kind of omniscience that suggests that Darl is more like an author, one who knows his character's actions because he writes them, rather than like other characters subject to laws beyond their control.

For Dewey Dell, Darl's near-mystical knowledge is a relief, as she is spared the shame and indignity of having to tell him or others what she has gone through. Instead, she can take some solace in simply sharing knowing gazes with him, in search of familial connection that so often is not fulfilled in other ways in this family.

12. Darl Quotes

“Jewel’s hat droops limp about his neck…Jewel, I say, she is dead, Jewel. Addie Bundren is dead.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Addie Bundren
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl's thoughts are shifting forwards and backwards between past and present scenes, between memories and the realities of the present moment, as Addie has just died. One of Darl's tasks is to tell his brother Jewel that their mother has died. This task is significant in part because of just how negligent Anse has been: while his children grapple with the fact of their mother's death, they must simultaneously figure out how to manage things and direct what needs to be done. 

At the same time, Darl's repetitive language to Jewel is a somber reminder of how even for someone as eloquent as Darl, certain events (like death) can sometimes exceed language, which can prove ultimately insufficient in encapsulating what has taken place.

13. Vardaman Quotes

“I will be where the fish was, and it all cut up into not-fish now.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Vardaman Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

In his own way, the six-year-old Vardaman is attempting to come to terms with his mother's death based on the language he can use and the references he can understand. Vardaman has caught a certain amount of fish, but now he looks at what he caught in the basket and notices that it has changed irrevocably: what he sees now is "not-fish," not the living beings that he handled in the water, but objects lacking animation, lacking life. Vardaman draws a connection, even if he cannot explicitly say so, between this mysterious change from "fish" into "not-fish" and the change undergone by his own mother, from life to death.

15. Vardaman Quotes

“It was not here. I was there, looking. I saw. I thought it was her, but it was not. It was not my mother….It was not here because it was laying right yonder in the dirt. And now it’s all chopped up. I chopped it up. It’s laying in the kitchen in the bleeding pan, waiting to be cooked and et.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 66
Explanation and Analysis:

Vardaman is thinking about having seen the body of his mother, Addie Bundren, in her coffin. Although he is only a young child, Vardaman has a strong intuition in certain ways about what it means to die: he recognizes, for instance, that although his mother's corpse is recognizable as the body of Addie Bundren, the body is not "his mother" - that is, what makes it "his mother" has disappeared. 

Vardaman links this strange disconnect between presence and absence to the first-hand experience that he has with fish, which were once alive, but which become forever something else once he chops them up to be eaten. Although Vardaman's language may seem obscure, this is not because he has advanced theoretical ideas, but because he is attempting, with only the tools available to a six-year-old mind, to grapple with vast questions of life, death, and the border between the two.

17. Darl Quotes

“In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you….I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or am not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl contrasts his own experience preparing for sleep "in a strange room" with the experience that he assumes Jewel and those like him have - an experience that, for Darl, is simpler and more straightforward than his own. Here, Darl reveals his openness to the great questions of mortality and existence - questions that can often recur as one prepares to sleep. At that border between wakefulness and sleeping (a border that in some ways seems a good deal like the border between life and death) identity and meaning become unclear. At least, they become a source of anxiety for Darl, who not only does not know who he is, but also begins to wonder whether he "is" or "is not" - and what it means to "be" at all (probably an allusion to Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy).

While Darl is able to make use of a more nuanced and complex (albeit confusing) language than Vardaman, he, like his brother, is preoccupied with such monumental questions. In some ways, Darl seems to envy Jewel, who (to Darl at least) seems not even to concern himself with such questions. This, too, is a way that Darl's character shares so little with Jewel's, in that Jewel prefers to act out his meaning rather than parse out what his life means from afar.

19. Vardaman Quotes

“My mother is a fish.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Vardaman Bundren
Related Symbols: Fish
Page Number: 84
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous line of As I Lay Dying, Vardaman uses a situation that he is quite familiar with, that of catching, skinning, and eating fish, to a new, unknown situation in which he finds himself (dealing with his mother's death). As we have seen in earlier quotations, Vardaman has already drawn a connection between the fish that were alive when he caught them, and then are limp and still, ready to be cut up and eaten - and his mother, once alive and now silent and still in her coffin. Fish have this property of at one point being lively, at another point being still, and Vardaman can see that his mother too has that quality. As a result, it is not preposterous to say that his mother is a fish: it simply means that if his mother has certain properties, and a fish has the same properties, it could well mean mathematically that his mother is fish. Vardaman doesn't necessarily mean this judgment literally: instead, he is trying to use the definitions that he has at his disposal in order to make sense of where he finds himself. 

21. Darl Quotes

“It’s not your horse that’s dead, Jewel…Jewel’s mother is a horse.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Jewel's Horse
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl continues his rivalry with Jewel, contrasting his way of understanding the world to his brother’s, even as they both attempt to grapple with Addie’s death in different ways. Darl views Jewel’s attachment to his horse critically, both because Jewel’s attachment to it sets him off from the rest of the family, and because Jewel’s focus on the horse embodies such a different, more visceral way of grappling with Addie’s death than Darl’s language-based, symbolically complex attitude.

Here, Darl connects Jewel’s love for Addie to his love for horses, and, using the same transitive property as Vardaman did earlier, links Addie to a horse ("my mother is a fish" becomes "Jewel's mother is a horse"). This potentially pejorative statement has more to do, however, with Darl’s own frustrations in trying to assign meaning to his mother’s life and death within the context of a family that is so internally different and inconsistent.

22. Cash Quotes

“It won’t balance. If they want it to tote and ride on a balance, they will have …”

Related Characters: Cash Bundren (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

Cash has spent a great deal of time and care hammering and sawing the coffin that will hold Addie’s body. Now, in a short but intense exchange with someone who remains unnamed (but who we will later learn is Jewel), Cash fixates on the coffin’s lack of balance, which will make it more difficult for the family to carry it to Jefferson. Cash’s intense attention to this lack of balance might seem relatively unimportant in the scheme of his mother’s death. Nonetheless, this passage underlines Cash’s own way of coming to terms with his mother’s death, by using all his technical skill in the creation of a physical object that might honor Addie. This material activity may lack verbal explanation or justification, but it is another way of responding to death – even if it is one that other characters, including Jewel, cannot understand.

30. Dewey Dell Quotes

“I heard that my mother is dead. I wish I had time to let her die. I wish I had time to wish I had.”

Related Characters: Dewey Dell Bundren (speaker), Addie Bundren
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

As the family approaches the (potentially) aptly named New Hope, Dewey Dell clings to the possibility of a new leaf even as she continues to grapple with her own problems. Here, she admits to herself that Addie has died while Dewey Dell herself was preoccupied with other matters – not necessarily with petty desires like Anse, but with her pregnancy and chances for an abortion, all of which she must hide from her family and from those around her. Dewey Dell expresses regret that she didn’t have the “time” to let her mother die, suggesting that death is something that snuck up on her while she wasn’t paying attention, something that she hasn’t had time to come to terms with or seek to understand. Immediately, however, Dewey Dell acknowledges that she hasn’t even had the time to fully have these regrets, busy as she’s been with everything else going on her life. Dewey Dell’s acknowledgement of the distance between her mother’s death and her own feelings and experiences suggests just how disjointed and apart the various experiences of the characters in the novel can be – a lack of unity underlined by the multiple perspectives and voices that make up the narrative.

34. Darl Quotes

“Jewel shouts at the horse…He is just above the top of the ford and the horse has a purchase of some sort for it surges forward, shining wetly half out of water…Cash is half turned, the reins running taut from his hand and disappearing into the water, the other hand reached back upon Addie, holding her jammed over against the high side of the wagon.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel, Cash Bundren, Addie Bundren
Related Symbols: Jewel's Horse
Page Number: 148-149
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl describes a scene of chaos and desperation when the family attempts to cross a river, and the wagon pitches as the horse rears up and through the water. The way Darl describes the scene imbues it with an almost mythical beauty and significance. The family’s trip to Jefferson, described skeptically by a number of the characters, becomes more than a pointless journey and suddenly takes on life-and-death implications. Cash’s insistence on keeping Addie’s coffin afloat reminds us that members of the family do have real feelings for Addie, even as they sometimes coexist with pettier, more self-interested motivations. Still, this one brief surge of heroism as the brothers strive to keep the family together and cross the river contrasts to such an extent with the rest of the voyage as to challenge the idea that the journey is really heroic and significant at all.

40. Addie Quotes

“So I took Anse. And when I knew that I had Cash, I knew that living was terrible and that this was the answer to it. That was when I learned that words are no good; that words don’t ever fit even what they are trying to say at.”

Related Characters: Addie Bundren (speaker), Cash Bundren, Anse Bundren
Page Number: 171
Explanation and Analysis:

Speaking either from the grave or in a flashback to the time before her death, Addie reflects on the trajectory of her life since she decided to marry Anse. Here, Addie portrays the act of starting a family, of having children, not as an exciting step or meaningful action but rather as devoid of any greater significance. Indeed, for Addie "motherhood" or "family" are no more than words, words that people think mean something, but in fact only mask the suffering involved in living. 

Addie is thus on the side of Jewel in terms of a skepticism towards language: unlike Jewel, however, she does not simply embrace action over language, but critiques one while refusing to align with the other. Addie's pessimism may be intense, but it is rooted in her direct experience of living and in her understanding of the meaninglessness of categories and events by which other people ascribe significance to their lives.

49. Vardaman Quotes

“And I saw something Dewey Dell told me not to tell nobody. It is not about pa and it is not about Cash and it is not about Jewel and it is not about Dewey Dell and it is not about me.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker), Darl Bundren, Dewey Dell Bundren
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 215
Explanation and Analysis:

Darl has assured Vardaman, as they walk outside, that he has heard Addie speaking to them from within her coffin: she has told them to remove her from the sight of man. Darl's language seems to be derived from the Bible, and is another reminder of how differently and creatively the characters use faith and religion in pursuit of their own interests and in following their own particular beliefs.

This passage in particular underlines the specific perspective of Vardaman in the family, as the youngest and the child who must rely the most on the knowledge and protection of the others. As if in an example of rote learning from school, Vardaman goes through the list of people not involved in what Dewey Dell told him. By doing so he believes that he's still obeying Dewey Dell, but he also reveals his limited understanding as he clings to the words available to him in a confusing and constantly changing context.

50. Darl Quotes

“Then it topples forward, gaining momentum, revealing Jewel and the sparks raining on him too in engendering gusts, so that he appears to be closed in a thin nimbus of fire.”

Related Characters: Darl Bundren (speaker), Jewel
Related Symbols: The Coffin
Page Number: 222
Explanation and Analysis:

In a show of attempted heroism and faithfulness to Addie, Jewel is emerging from the fire with her coffin, firmly positioning himself as Addie's most beloved son once again. Darl, of course, has put this entire series of events into action. And yet even he cannot help but admire Jewel's actions, describing them in his typically lush and powerfully descriptive language. Darl describes Jewel as a kind of Christ figure, sacrificing himself for the good of another - even though his own carefully reasoned judgment has made him conclude that the best thing for everyone would be for the fire to consume everything, and for the coffin to be swallowed up as well. Even while remaining in opposition to his brother, then, Darl is drawn to him, fascinated by the strange familial connections that keep them together despite their differences.

51. Vardaman Quotes

“The barn was still red, but it wasn’t a barn now.”

Related Characters: Vardaman Bundren (speaker)
Page Number: 223
Explanation and Analysis:

Vardaman is watching the barn burn, and in his characteristically youthful and limited language he uses this event to meditate on the same questions of mortality, existence, and action that he has regarding Addie and regarding fish that he's caught. Vardaman knows that he's looking at the place where the barn until quite recently stood. But the fire is consuming the wood making up the barn: does this then mean that the barn no longer exists? How then might one describe and explain what once was present and now is gone - the process of death and disappearance for humans as well as physical objects? As is usual in Faulkner, the simplest language can speak as powerfully as more complex phrasing.

53. Cash Quotes

“Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint…It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.”

Related Characters: Cash Bundren (speaker), Darl Bundren
Page Number: 233
Explanation and Analysis:

The family is deliberating on whether and when to send Darl away to a mental asylum. This gives Cash the opportunity to reflect on what the term "crazy" means at all - a notion that the novel has implicitly and thematically explored, given its interest in the distinction between subjective intention and experience, and the objective world. The novel as a whole raises the question, indeed, as to whether these two things are not indelibly connected; that is, if it's impossible to separate the world outside from how different people experience and interpret it. 

For Cash, Darl may be "crazy" in the eyes of the world - according to the "majority of folks" - and yet he's not at all sure that this means that Darl is definitively mad. Cash thinks that it may all depend on who has the "right" to label certain people normal and certain people crazy. While Cash doesn't explicitly meditate on the implications of this notion, they are striking: he has implied that language is enormously powerful in that how someone is labeled, the name assigned to him or her, can determine his or her life.